Negative City Experience: Gender

One of the most common experiences in a urban area is a negative sidewalk interaction on the basis of gender. Catcalling is a type of street harassment that often involves a man as initiator, in a public space, verbally trying to capture the attention of woman, who he doesn’t previously know, using sexual comments (di Leonardo via Bowman 1993). The male initiators of sidewalk interactions often defend this behavior by arguing that not only is this behavior a polite form of civil discourse but that their comments are complimentary. Campaigns going as far back as the early 20th century show women (and men) trying to fight against this misconception and explain that this behavior is unwanted. While other negative interactions are based on the person being undesirable, catcalling happens when a man wants a woman to know that he finds her desirable.

The experience is common and has been studied by many different types of scholars including feminist geographers who have interrogated the fear of violence and the way this changes the way women move through spaces.

Notes on Attraction, repulsion and desirability

What am I measuring? And why? One of my jokey subtitles for my dissertation was ‘quantifying the oppression olympics.’ You know the ‘oppression olympics‘ that ‘game’ you play with your friends at cocktail parties competing over who has it worse, disabled people or trans people? Black people or Latinx? It’s not a fun or particularly useful game because pain is pain, comparison isn’t usually going to get you to improve your cocktail party or lead to understanding. But exploring the question of which demographic groups are most and least respected in the US seems worthwhile.

Another way of putting this is social desirability. A friend once joked that the most powerful people in America were old rich white men and young attractive women. The term social capital is used to refer to education and other attributes that make people attractive in the economy. Social desirability includes the more attributes that make people attractive in sidewalk interactions, which often happen very quickly. On the nature vs nurture debate, I think social desirability is more nature, since it has a lot to do with what you look like, while social capital is more nurture. While completely subjective ‘attractiveness’ is also completely socially constructed, overtly political, and objective in the sense that you are treating someone else as an object rather than a subject. While it’s true for someone to say ‘I’m just not attracted to black women’ this truth was not achieved in an apolitical media vacuum and OKCupid stats bare this out.

With the recent incel news came this article: Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex. In the article, Amia Srinivasan problematizes sex-positivity which, she argues, covers for misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia and every other oppressive system under “the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.” While gay men understand and problematize this phenomenon with thing the webseries ‘What the Flip’. However, writes Srinivasan,” straight people – or should I say, white, able-bodied, cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”


During winter quarter I took a few qualitative courses where I got the opportunity to think a lot about my positionality. Social scientists often talk about positionality; it’s an attempt to think reflexively about the relationship between the researcher and the research. Often this is a chance to take a look at power structures inherent in socio-cultural research and an attempt to take other perspectives into account. Although I am a black woman, and I’m certainly interested in how different demographic groups (like black women) experience the urban landscape, my reflections on positionality have little to do with my identity as a black woman. My unique view with respect to my research hinges on my inner personality and my intense aversion to and skepticism towards strangers. I walk a lot and I really hate it when strangers try to interact with me on the sidewalk. Some people like to interact with others on the street, they see this as a sign of a healthy community, but for me it’s the quickest way to ruin my day.  

I’ve been calling this phenomenon the ‘urban community worldview.’ (please help me come up with a better term, this one sucks) Initially I thought it was an introvert/extrovert thing, that, introverts don’t want to interact with strangers, but it’s more than that. It has to do with how you think of your community and what you think urban settings should feel like.
One thing I noticed is that I feel more comfortable in certain spaces that others. In a space like my home, I feel like people know me and draw conclusions based on what they know of my past behavior, it’s subjective. In other spaces, like sidewalks, I interact with people I don’t know, and their knowledge is based on my context and immediate surroundings, it’s more objective. I’m not using objective to say that it’s more true, in fact I feel rather the opposite way, but objective space is a place where you are judged as an object.

There are other factors I want to research, but like my skin tone and gender there’s not a whole lot I can do about my urban community worldview. When I think about my sample I want to make sure I have people on both sides of the urban community worldview spectrum.

State of the Research I

State of my Research:
Since I started grad school this fall I’ve decided to use this blog to talk about where I’m at in my research. Right now my topic is street transgressions, a term I made up and defined as: any breech of civil inattention with eye contact, gesture or speech. Civil inattention is a fancy sociological term for the way we ignore strangers on the street, how we acknowledge them without fully engaging. Generally one looks at the other from about 8 ft away, without making eye contact, and then looks away, you may look again at closer range. I’m considering any deviation from this to be a street transgression
I initially started using the term street harassment, looking at gender and race based interactions but found the term troubling and problematic for a few reasons.
1) harassment is so negatively charged that it ignores positive experiences that people have with strangers in public
2) harassment is a crime, it criminalizes the ‘harasser,’ something I find counterproductive to my project
3) I want to be as inclusive as possible here; catcalling, stop & frisk policies, pamphleteers, people asking for money, I think all of this contributes to where certain people feel safe (or unsafe) in urban areas.

This topic has been in the news lately, with Hollaback bringing attention to gendered harassment:

and Eric Garner bringing attention to race-based harassment:

Initially I was worried, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an academic studying urban black problems (being an urban black woman myself). In light of current events I feel a responsibility to the black community to continue my research.
My experiment seeks to use GPS to track where and to whom these street transgressions occur. I’d like to chose a demographic sample and have them track street transgressions on their phones. I hope that this simple data will help us figure out what is going on and how we can make the world feel like a safer place for everyone.

Feminist Style

After hearing about the VIDA Count on the bookriot podcast I’ve been trying to only read books by women this year. This summer I read the Golden Notebook and Americanah. When describing the books to a friend, he asked if I was into ‘alternative storytelling.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until then that neither of the books were conventionally written novels. In fact none of the books I’ve read this year have been. I don’t want to essentialize the sexes, and having only read women this year I don’t have the tools to do so. But it did make me wonder, do women write differently from men?

I’ve simultaneously been preparing for graduate school in geography. I love reading, and have developed lots of technical GIS skills in my recent work but I’ve been worried about writing. One thing that worries me is citation, I want to give credit where it’s due, and fully and truthfully acknowledge that no idea comes from a vacuum. MLA citations don’t seem like enough to me, I don’t want to pretend that these ideas are mine. Not to cite is stealing, but citing seems colonialist and anti-feminist. It doesn’t seem like enough to put someone in a footnote if my name is at the top of the paper.

I recognize that this reaction is gendered, that this false humility is performative. Women have to site sources, they have to give credit or their work won’t be viewed as legitimate. Women and minorities are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome: a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence. Society values white men in academia, women have to prove themselves with citations and data. In addition, a woman who doesn’t do this is viewed as aggressive and bitchy, whereas the same behavior would be viewed as entrepreneurial in a man.

Nonetheless, I have trouble with the way non-fiction is written these days by both sexes. To me the rubric for blogposts (like this) seems to be personal anecdote followed by study that supports this, then more anecdata followed by more scientific (or often pseudoscientific) data. These blogposts turn into articles and ultimately turn into books. These articles don’t seem to take into account the history of the ideas that preceded them. They pass off others ideas as their own.

What is the best way to honor our ancestors’ ideas, do we use citations, even though they have been used to undermine people int he past? Do we use the power of the internet to link back to the web of papers and ideas? Or do we co-opt the same misogynistic ideology and say these ideas are mine as much as they are yours or anyone else’s?

the onus of the ‘me’ generation

Millennials, my generation, get a bad rap. A lot of it is completely deserved, we’re certainly selfish and spoiled but who spoiled us? Our parents generation may have had it rough, but we’re also having a tough time in this recession. A couple years ago a bunch of studies came out showing that Millenials are the first American generation to do worse than their parents. Our parents had pressures and stresses, but of a completely different kind than ours. Many (or maybe most?) parents of Millenials in the Boomer generation were forced into jobs and roles they weren’t ‘suited’ to. The idea wasn’t to be happy, but to be working. But my generation grew up with the idea that we should find something that makes us happy, aren’t we lucky? But with this privilege comes the responsibility to actually be happy; easier said than done.

The existential crisis of the Millennial generation won’t be middle aged men finding themselves in jobs they don’t enjoy and women having Friedan-like awakenings. We had the pressure to like Joseph Campbell, ‘Follow Your Bliss’ and probably picked job we were suited for (we probably didn’t go for the money, because chances are we’re not gonna make enough in any job). As a result we have to deal with the guilt of being unhappy in a job we ‘should’ be happy in. This pressure is immense.

As I struggle with this responsibility myself and go back to grad school I’ve noticed other characters asking the same questions about privilege and class and responsibility to be happy. In Doris Lessing’s the Golden Notebook, Tommy Portmain, the protagonist’s twenty-something son struggles to find himself. As the son of a bohemian mother and a wealthy businessman father he tries to decide whether to be poor and fulfilled or rich and empty (like I said, our generation is probably going to be poor anyway, so we might as well be fulfilled). He envies the milkman with no education, “he hasn’t any choice at all. He’s got a scholarship, and if he fails to make the exam, he’ll spend his life delivering milk with his father. But if he passes, and he will, he’ll be up in the middle-class with us.” “A hundred things to do, but only one thing to be,” he said, obstinately. “But perhaps I don’t feel myself worthy of such a wealth of opportunity?”
It’s similar to Matt Damon’s character in School Ties, who envies Brendan Frasier’s character, “Cause if you get what you want, you’ll deserve it. And if you don’t…you’ll manage. You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations.”

Brendan Frasier and the Milkman’s son can always blame their unhappiness on their circumstance, but how do the privileged justify their malaise, or even their bad days? They’re struggling with the responsibility of their wealth and privilege but also with the pressure of being happy.

their crisis subsides as they grow up. Tommy find contentment in disability, SPOILER ALERT – after a botched suicide attempt leaves him blind, he marries well and lives off a disability check. He never had to sell his soul for money (always having been a supporter of the government teet) and he gets to read and write and love and travel. Matt Damon’s character doesn’t get an epilogue but according to his own predictions, he’ll end up at Harvard, becoming a businessman like his family. More importantly to the plot of the movies he’ll still be an asshole. In our society it’s hard to sympathize for those who come from privilege so raw and explicit. As well it probably should be, but that isn’t to say that life isn’t difficult.

Women I Admire: Dominique Dawes

As a young black gymnast, Dominique Dawes was my idol. As a child my walls were bare except a big Dominique Dawes poster squished by my bottom bunk, wishing me goodnight and reminding me what excellence could look like.

Like most children I looked for representations of myself, and was lucky enough to live in a place where I could find them. They added the black American girl doll (Addy) during my childhood, I had a great black power library by my house, and a school full of educated and progressive teachers who knew that Black history was American history. I knew of Nadia Comenici of course, and did book reports on Olga Korbut and Mary-Lou Retton (same year I did a report on Josephine Baker) but no one held a candle to ‘Awesome Dawesome’.

Ultimately I was far too tall to be a great gymnast. Even the tallest gymnasts I saw on TV, who seemed to tower above all the others, was Svetlana Khorkina who clocked in at a whopping 5′ 5″. By 5th grade, I was 5′ 7″ Though it took me years to realize it, it just wasn’t meant to be.



“They’re angry at you, all the time. After a while, it just grinds you down…
The applicants are angry because I can’t see how special they are. Their parents are angry because I let in some other kid with a lower SAT score. The alumni are angry because they got into Princeton, but their brilliant kid got denied. The faculty’s angry because we took the athlete, not the genius, but the football players know that its easier to get in if you throw the discus, and all the violinists and pianists are pretty sure you have an edge if you play something strange, like a tuba or the harpsichord. All the New Yorkers believe that everyone out there from South Dakota gets in automatically, but out there in South Dakota they think they don’t stand a chance at a place like Princeton. The working-class kids are convinced we’re selling admission to the highest bidder. Simone is angry at us because we’re elitist, but the elite know for sure that we’re giving their places away to every black or Hispanic kid who applies. Nonlegacy kids are pissed of because they read somewhere that legacy kids are twice as likely to be admitted. But I’ve watched my boss get up in front of a packed house at reunions and tell all those loyal alumni that two-thirds of their kids are going to be rejected. Let me tell you, they’re not thrilled about that. When I go out to visit schools, the kids are mad at me because they know I’m going to dangle this beautiful thing in front of them and encourage them to apply, and then reject their applications. The college counselors, the private ones who charge thousands of dollars, they’re furious at us, because we’re furious at them, and if we even smell them on an application it pisses us off, which makes it hard for them to sell their services to the parents, who are already angry at us and are now going to be angry at them, too.”

“Can i just say, as a mother of a prospective applicant…that it’s very frustrating. We’re all trying to figure out what you want. And it feels like every time we figure out the rules, you just change them. One year it’s ‘well-rounded students.’ The next it’s minorities who play the flute,’ then as if remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be about her, she rephrased her conclusion. “these kids want to be able to give you what you want.’

And therein, thought Portia…resided the problem…

‘We’re very much aware of that,’she told them. ‘we understand the frustration. And I don’t think there’s anyone in my field right now who isn’t worried about what this is doing to the kids. And I don’t just mean the competition, though that’s bad enough. I mean what the process is doing to them psychologically…We’ve got twenty-five percent of all college applications in this country going to one percent of the schools. And that one percent includes the only fifteen American colleges who accept less than twenty percent of their applicants. We know there are parents who are doing everything they can to game the system. They’re having their kids diagnosed ADHD or learning disabled so they can get extra time on the SAT. Now that ETS has stopped denoting which students have been given extra time, there’s no reason not to. But the message. To the kids. They’ve been tutored in everything, for years, whether they need it or not. So what they come to understand is: I’m not good enough to do it on my own. I need help to be successful…

And how can that not carry forward into their adult lives? I think it already impacts their experience as college students. We have students who freak out when they no longer have that support. They’re e-mailing their tutors and sending them their papers for review. They feel fraudulent…

I had a pretty scary conversation last year with one of my friend Rachel’s babysitters. She’s a senior at Princeton now. She told me a lot of her friends have a kind of disassociation. They’ve spent years assembling this perfect self to display to use — to people who are going to make these important decisions about htem. But sometimes they don’t feel they’re that person at all. They don’t feel smart or capable in the least, and of course when they get to Princeton they’re surrounded by their peers, who have done just as good a job of assembling this competent veneer, then they feel as if they’re the only fake in the bunch. This girl, Samantha was telling me there’s so much self-doubt. When I heard that, I suddenly felt as if I’ve been doing these kids a disservice.
They expect a lot from themselves.
Oh my God. So much. I honestly wonder if they’re not creating, or at least abetting, this surge of anxiety and depression in college-aged kids. And then there’s the other side of the coin. Which the babysitter also pointed out to me. Which is that some of them get to college and they just let all those balls they’ve been juggling for years fall out of their hands. They’ve worked themselves into the ground to get in. They feel like they missed out on slacking off. So now that they’re in, they’re going to have that lazy teenager thing they never had in high school. Seriously the whole system. I wonder about it sometimes. But this where we are. In a few years, it will probably look different.”

Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Late post with some quotes from Admission (pulpy novel the Tina Fey movie is based on) which I read earlier this summer while studying for the GREs. Illuminating a little of the complex many in my generation share. How did I get here? Why did I get here as opposed to someone else? How do I make the best of it? Not hugely different from other generations post-adolescent quandaries except in the magnitude of inequality.

To the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into the College of their Dreams
It’s different for grad school but my 2 cents is that I want to be somewhere that wants to have me, not someplace where I’m the last person they pick off the wait-list.

Works in Progress I: So I Had this Idea for a Show

I’m toying with the idea of creating a podcast. As an avid podcast listener the idea of putting my hat in the ring is daunting but also exciting. My idea is to talk about music. I know that getting the format right is important and updating on a schedule is key. My ambitious* idea is to have one song (or piece) a week: once a month the song would be recent (a term I’ll define later) and once a month the song would be ‘classical music’ (again, something I’ll define later). I would feature guests to talk about certain pieces, including people I know in musicology departments, musicians and I know, as well as other family and friends. We would use the music to talk about other things, for example:
the Star Trek Soundtrack
-theramin history and usage
-autism and race
Amadou and Miriam
-World music/African music market
Beck – Song Reader
-“slow music movement” (like slow food for music)
-history of parlor music
-Beck and Scientology, does it matter?

I have no idea how long such a conversation might last, I’m thinking maybe 10-30 mns. This is my example script/notes for a Star Trek Soundtrack show.

Guest (I have a certain UCLA musicologist in mind for this some)
Some questions:
Are you a Star Trek Fan? How did you first come across the franchise? Which is your favorite series?

What was your impression of the soundtrack?

The original Star Trek theme is known for being an early use of the theremin (though according to Wikipedia it wasn’t). The theremin is an early electronic instrument named for its inventor Leon Theremin. It is recognizable for its use in sci-fi soundtracks.

Star Trek the original series is also known for its progressive treatment of race (the first interracial kiss on TV!). The crew featured all the major ethnicities, Sulu representing Asians, Uhura for Africa, Chekhov Eastern European, Scotty, Western European, Kirk, America (I guess). What struck me watching the movie now was how short-sighted this view multicultural view was. In the future all races will work together, in equality, but they won’t reproduce with each other? There were no mixed-race characters. Weirdly, Khan seems to represent a multi-racial Asian, dissecting his full name Khan Noonian Singh you might get, Khan: Central Asian, Noonian: Middle Eastern, and Singh: South Asian (YES I realize this is total racist speculation, that’s how Roddenbery seems to Roll). The Khan as terrorist Osama Bin Laden analogy seems too easy so we won’t talk about that.

In addition to the diversity on earth, the original series featured a representative of an extraterrestrial race with Spock the Vulcan. It was interesting to me how Vulcan tendancies were very in line with the autistic spectrum. Autism is having a moment in America, according to the PSAs, 1 in 50 children will develop autism. Some possible causes I’ve heard are: assertive mating, high income, computer culture, and vaccines, etc.

In conclusion, don’t see Star Trek for the music, it’s not that great. And frankly, the movie’s not that great either, but I was entertained throughout. I hope you were just as entertained by this conversation.
This has been — podcast, with our special guest —– —–
Shouout to — (probably my mom, who will be my one listener)
you can find more information at the website (which I’ll create) etc.

Let me know if you have ideas for titles, sponsors, words of wisdom/warning, etc.

*I know this schedule is extremely ambitious, especially since I haven’t been able to maintain a schedule for this blog lately, (and I’ve been unemployed!) but I think once I get started it will easier to maintain.

Things that made me cry

This is a list of things that have made me cry in the last month or so:

I had originally thought to put the list in order of what should have made me cry but I don’t think such an order exists. I am trying to be kinder to myself about being a highly sensitive person. Recognizing that I am part of a larger group (20% of individuals) who share this genetic trait and that there isn’t anything wrong with it.

This feels related to this post from around this time last year.